How Atlético Madrid Is Making La Liga Fun Again

The typical European soccer league hierarchy is in a bit of flux this year. Yes, England's league, as usual, remains the deepest in the world in the midst of an amazingly competitive campaign with more swerves and shifts of momentum than a Gareth Bale free kick. But in Germany—often the most competitive from top to bottom with only one true superpower in Bayern Munich—the league has been all but over since the moment the Bavarians announced the Mario Götze transfer. Out in Spain, though, in the oft-derided "two-team" La Liga, the moons have aligned to make this season maybe just as compelling as the EPL. Mainly because, for once, Barcelona and Real Madrid are not alone at the top the table.

At this moment, Atlético Madrid are level on points with the two mainstays—their first stint there since lifting the cup at the end of the 1995-96 season. This century, only one team has prevented either Barcelona or Real Madrid from winning the league (Valencia twice, in 2002 and 2004). And since the 2004-05 season, the two Spanish heavyweights have finished some combination of first and second all but once, when Villarreal came in second in 2007-08.

So yeah, it's pretty fucking rare to see anyone other than the big two at the top of the table. The best part is that this is in no way a fluke. Atléti are a real threat to win the whole thing. Even the most basic of statistics bear this out. Their goal difference is +40, just one goal behind Real Madrid and six behind Barcelona. They've amassed that tally by boasting the best defense in La Liga, conceding only 16 times in 23 games. Coupled with their defensive stinginess is the 56 goals they've scored, an impressive 31 of which have come from their fearsome striking tandem.

You can't talk about this team without first noting their defensive prowess, the foundation of everything they do. While their regular back four of Juanfran, Miranda, Diego Godín, and Filipe Luis form a solid group that's difficult to break down, it's really the whole team's constant pressure that marks their excellence. Every single player, from striker Diego Costa to attacking midfielder Arda Turan, chase after the ball while not in possession like hunting dogs on the trail of wounded prey. Atléti complete the most tackles in La Liga by a wide margin, averaging 1.2 more per game than the second-best team. By winning back the ball in any and all areas of the pitch, Atlético prevent opponents from getting into dangerous areas—despite averaging a middling 48.1 percent of possession, Atlético concede the second fewest shots per game—and spark the counterattacks for which they're built.

It's fitting, then, that Gabi, their workhorse of a defensive midfielder, is tied for the highest Who Scored average rating on the team. Gabi is the fulcrum of both the defensive and attacking strategies for Atlético. He leads the team in both total tackles and average passes per game, and is a close second in long balls per game. Those stats perfectly illustrate his playing style: he breaks up play in midfield before it gets too dangerous, quickly transitions from defense to attack by spraying a long pass to a forward-charging attacker, and when the attack slows down, his calm and assured passing from deep allows the team to search for a goal more deliberately.

For as long as Diego Simeone has been in charge of Atlético Madrid, though, they have always been defensively sound. The difference this year has been their improvement on the attacking end. And a huge part of the credit there must go to Diego Costa, the newest polished diamond to emerge from the Atlético Finishing School for Strikers. It's uncanny, really. The rojiblancos have developed and sold off the striking talents of Fernando Torres, Sergio Agüero, and Radamel Falcao, each successive forward filling the shoes of the previous one with hardly a skipped beat.

Diego Costa perfectly embodies Simeone's preferred playing style. He is constantly running after the ball. It doesn't matter if it's a pass between opposition players or a long ball meant for him to latch on to, he will tear after it regardless. What he does with the ball when he gets it is even more important. All Costa does is score. His 20 goals in the league is second only to Cristiano Ronaldo's 22 and puts him third behind Luis Suárez's 23 in the top five European leagues. Not only that, his 3.2 shots per game is easily the lowest among the other top five goal-scorers in the big five leagues.

But no striker can score so regularly without a complementary squad. Probably the most revelatory player on this end has been Koke. The young Spaniard has emerged this year as one of the most talented and versatile midfield players in the world. He's been played most often this year out wide in what is ostensibly a 4-4-2, but what really resembles more of an off-balanced 4-3-3, mostly because of Koke's narrowness. Koke is naturally a central midfielder, so he likes to stay closer to the middle of the park than a traditional winger. On the other flank is Arda Turan, himself a natural central attacking midfielder, who pushes a little higher to form an irregular forward three with Costa and David Villa, who remain pretty central. Their narrowness and constant pressure isolates opponents when pressed and cuts down any easy outlets the harried ball-handler could otherwise find to short-circuit Atlético's pressure. They don't get overrun in the midfield because of Koke's and Turan's more central play, plus at least one and usually both of their strikers are willing to drop deeper to continue pressing. It really is a team-wide philosophy that, when fully committed to, seamlessly integrates all facets of their game.

It's not just the fight for the championship that's making this a great season, either. Like the Premier League, where the title race now looks to have come down to the top three, there is still a compelling battle for the last Champions League spot at stake. There, Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal, and Real Sociedad all have eyes on fourth place. Those three clubs have some of the world's best young talent, and play an attractive style of soccer worthy of any fan's attention.

All of this is to say that La Liga gets a bad rap. In its worst years, when vastly superior Barcelona and Real Madrid sides mow through largely disinterested competition cannibalized by selling its stars to the big two, it deserves its reputation. But every now and then, there are legitimate challengers to the throne, and a cadre of secondary teams who put together young squads that are fun to watch and actually test the bigger clubs both within the league (hell, the only reason Atlético aren't still atop the league alone is because of a shock loss this weekend to newly-promoted Almería) and in European competitions.

Unfortunately, due in large part to the financial realities in Spanish soccer, these times of deep quality are somewhat rare and inevitably fleeting. Koke and Diego Costa are most likely destined for bigger, richer clubs, as are the Antoine Griezmanns and Iker Muniaíns of the league. But while we can, while La Liga is still offering up a deep slate of great, competitive games, we should enjoy it.